Take A Peck of Flower

Crispin Sexi (Jaysen Ollerenshaw), 2006

Music available as: Noteworthy, PDF, Midi.

The Words

Feeling inspired by such alcohol and food related airs as "The Owle" (Ravenscroft), "Malt's Come Down" (also Ravenscroft), and "I Gave Her Cakes" (Purcell), I decided that possibly "baked goods" might be a good theme for my next Elizabethan part-song. I set about looking up recipe books to get a list of foods, but did not get far beyond such rude items as buns, tarts and macaroons before I stumbled upon a recipe called "To Make a Cake" in Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book:

Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flowre & fruit together, put as much barme as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, all saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cake with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it. (Spurling, p137)

This item showed promise, both in subject and length. The phrase "mingle your spice and flowre & fruit together" sounded poetic, and with the ingredients including ale, I was sold. I set about turning the recipe into regular verse, opting for whatever line length felt natural while trying to retain as much of the original wording and spelling as possible. I ended up with six couplets, though had to drop one spice to help scansion:

Take a peck of flower, a peck of flower take,
And fower pound of currance, if thou wilt have a cake.
Nutmeg, mace and ginger, and cinamon thou'll take,
And one pound of butter, if thou wilt have a cake.
Mingle spice and flowre, and fruit all for this sake,
Add then barme to lighten, if thou wilt have a cake.
Take then finest ale, then finest ale take,
And put butter in it, if thou wilt have a cake.
Boyle milk with butter, a posset thou must make,
And temper thy mixture, if thou wilt have a cake.
Curd and all together, and sugar and so bake,
And now we are hungry, so let us have some cake.

A length of twelve syllables per line is slightly long for English airs, they typically having seven to ten per line, but not out of the question. "Toss the Pot" (Ravenscroft) includes eleven and twelve-syllable lines in the chorus.

Interestingly the recipe book used "you" and "your" rather than "thou" and "thy". The date in the front of the book was 1604, and, at that stage, choral songs did still made use of "thou" and "thy", although "you" and "your" were also starting to appear. I have opted for the older style of language.

I chose to have a refrain of "if thou wilt have a cake" both to identify what the song was about as often as possible, and to imitate the use of a refrain in such pieces as "We be Soldiers Three" (again Ravenscroft). The refrain did cause trouble with finding enough decent rhyming words, and I fell back on "take" too often for my liking. Fortunately for me, "bake" and "make" also appeared in the original recipe.

The Music

The rhythms in the two lines of each couplet are noticeably different, but I felt both were suited to an even 4:4 time signature and fitted nicely into eight bars, quite typical of the length of music of the period. I paired the couplets up into three stanzas in order to give a less repetitive piece of music than if it were treated as six short stanzas. I retained the same rhythm in the two halves of each stanza, mostly because I could not get the rhythm out of my head.

I elected to write this air for three voices, being soprano, alto and bass, as seen in "Change then For Lo" (Holbourne). This would make it easier for a choir to fill all parts. Besides, there is never a tenor around when you need one.

I chose to write the music in the Ionian mode based on C, very much the same as the modern key of C major. I wrote the bass part first, because it is fundamental to the harmonic structure of the piece. Bass notes in Elizabethan music are usually the root note of the chords, but may also be the third (Morely, p127). The melodic line of the bass takes great care to move through the acceptable chords of the mode, establishing it at first through use of the tonic and dominant (C and G), before later moving with more freedom (F, A, D and E) and then returning to a solid close from dominant to tonic. The overall harmonic structure is C to C, C to G, A to A, and G to C (these being the first and last chords of each four-bar phrase).

The soprano part I wrote next, aiming to keep it within the range G to E (a sixth). Being higher in pitch than the other voices, the soprano stands out. The aim for it is to have a fairly smooth step-wise melody, heading for the climax (in this case on E) and resolution (on C). Generally speaking, notes on the first and third beats of each bar are from the chord set by the bass part. In Elizabethan counterpoint the melody may only move parallel to the bass when making thirds and sixths with it (see the third and fourth notes of the second-last bar), otherwise movement must be of contrary direction or of differing intervals in the same direction (Morely, p72).

The alto part takes on a subordinate role, for it fills in the thirds of any chord where the other two voices only sound the root and fifth. At any other time the alto may move as freely as the soprano. Like the soprano, the alto part usually has a narrower range than an octave, so I kept it down to C to A (also a sixth). One downside of this range was that I had to amend the soprano part to fill in the third (the note B) of the dominant chord (G major) whenever it appeared.


Far from being stately church music, this is a light-hearted and whimsical song that would keep good company with "The Owle" and such-like in a social setting. It should proceed at a fairly quick and lively pace, made possible by the simplicity of the rhythm and melody.


Spurling, Hilary, Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, Penguin Books, London, 1987.

Morely, Thomas, A plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, Peter Short, London, 1597.

Examples referred to in the text may be found in:

Curthoys, Sasha, Rowany Festival Songbook AS XL, privately published, Sydney, 2006.

Greagg, David, The Lochac Songbook, privately published, Melbourne, 1997.

Copyright Jaysen Ollerenshaw 2006. Free use for non-profit.

Joan & Crispin's Homepage: http://aelflaed.homemail.com.au/